For one album, A Flock of Seagulls were more than a punchline.
Even with the revival of all things ‘80s that started in the early 2000s and still seems to be going on, most would probably only regard A Flock of Seagulls as a joke involving weird haircuts. Even now, with critical re-evaluation reaching some of the acts of the era that previously seemed destined to be remembered as one-hit novelties, the Seagulls are still either a punchline, cultural shorthand for the most anachronistically ‘80s things one could conceive of. Yet, beneath the garish image, there was–for a little while, at least–some substance to the band that bears itself out on their debut. While calling A Flock of Seagulls a masterpiece would be overselling it, the album is a stunning example of pop songcraft and proof that the group’s brief dominance of MTV and the pop charts wasn’t entirely a fluke.
Perhaps the most curious thing about the reputation of A Flock of Seagulls (both the band and the album) is how they’re held up as the example of synth-pop from the era. While the band made use of synthesizers more often than their contemporaries in the early ‘80s music scene in Liverpool did, the guitar work of Paul Reynolds is easily the most distinct thing about the band. In both his technical skill and his use of effects to pair his guitar alongside the synths, Reynolds is the man responsible for elevating A Flock of Seagulls beyond mere pleasant synth-pop, turning singles “I Ran (So Far Away)” and “Space Age Love Song” into futuristic-sounding, heart-on-sleeve epics (even if Mike Score’s lyrics didn’t necessarily match the outsized emotions of the music). Reynolds further asserts himself as the star of the band on the instrumental “D.N.A.,” on which his guitar and the band’s synths combine to create something truly cosmic. The connection between the Seagulls and the likes of U2 (as well as fellow Liverpudlians OMD) is arguably there to be drawn, even if people don’t necessarily make the connection anymore these days.
Furthermore, the deep cuts on A Flock of Seagulls show a band that was very willing to explore some interesting ideas, even if they were ideas their contemporaries were also delving into at the time. The usual timely tropes of the increasing encroachment of technology on modern life (expressed through music made on machines, no less) pops up on the likes of “Modern Love Is Automatic” and “Telecommunication,” but both are lively songs that admirably tackle their subject matter as well as anyone else from the period. Nothing quite outshines the singles, but each song leaves its own distinct impression, and when your singles are as good as “I Ran (So Far Away)” and “Space Age Love Song” are, saying that the album tracks don’t shine just as brightly isn’t as damning an indictment as it seems.
If there are cracks to be found on A Flock of Seagulls, they come, unfortunately, from the man who started the band in the first place. Try as he might, Mike Score doesn’t really assert himself as a lyricist. His words provide ideas and concepts, but they lack any real depth more often than not. This isn’t necessarily a problem, given that pop music has never been short on shallow lyricists, but it can take one out of the moment of enjoying, say, “You Can Run” when the question of what Score is actually saying pops into one’s head. Moreover, anyone approaching the album for the first time (and anyone who only knows the band from the singles) will likely infer that Score wasn’t really the best singer in the world. The better songs survive his occasionally wan vocal performances, but some of the later ballads on the album, particularly closer “Manmade,” fail to really take off as a result of Score’s voice keeping them perpetually earth-bound. Even so, that isn’t enough to keep A Flock of Seagulls from being occasionally brilliant.
Sadly, A Flock of Seagulls burned out way too quickly after their debut. Aside from the “Wishing” single that came out shortly after this album, they never approached the same sort of chart success or made an artistic statement as comprehensive as this debut. Today, Mike Score seems to have leaned into the “one-hit wonder” label, touring on nostalgia circuits and barely attempting to make any new, interesting music anymore. It’s likely that the band only ever had enough to make this one cohesive album. Even so, it’s an album that deserves to be cherished by people fond of this era of music. For one album, A Flock of Seagulls were more than a punchline.